A Conversation with Janet Peery
Mary Flinn: This is Mary Flinn, Senior Editor of Blackbird, in Norfolk, Virginia with Janet Peery to talk about her book What the Thunder Said. The first chapter, which appears in the book as the prologue, appeared in Blackbird as “How Beautiful Thy Feet With Shoes.”
Janet Peery: It took about ten years and four versions to come up with the final version of What the Thunder Said. The book did just sort of grow as interconnected stories. It was more an organic process than anything I’ve ever done before. And in the first novel I knew a starting point I wanted and I knew the finishing point. In this book I didn’t. I had only the novella as the central main story, but I didn’t know how to go about writing. I knew it needed something else with it. The novella alone wasn’t, I didn’t think, enough to sustain a book; moreover, there were so many other characters introduced in the novella that I thought were owed their own moments, or that I would have been interested in seeing how their lives turned out, or what they had to face later in their lives. So I wrote it four times. Each time the novella shrunk. I can’t recall which of the stories I wrote first to go with it; I think it was “How Beautiful Thy Feet With Shoes.” I realized in the novella that there were problems with the character of the father, and so I wanted to bring him forward in my own imagination to see what manner of man he was. And so I chose that moment in his life.
MF: One of the things that interests me is you chose all of those stories to go forward in time from the '30s, rather than to go back, for instance, to where the mother and the father met, or back into the mother’s story. The family is the Spoons, which is a wonderful name.
JP: Thank you.
MF: But was that a conscious decision to move forward in time and to leave what you know of those parents, what you’re shown by the father to a degree, and what their daughters sort of think them to be?
JP: Yes, in part it was that. I was also interested in just piercing moments in any given life of any ancillary character in the book. It’s interesting that you ask about why didn’t I go backward and render the moment of the parents meeting or render Audie Kip's childhood or something? In various drafts there were those moments. I excised them from the finished book and they survive as summary, brief summary, usually just providing you mostly motivation. So I’m still haunted a little bit by those prior moments for many of the characters, especially the father, Max Spoon.
MF: The way that they do sort of come on as sideways. You slide into a life at one moment, slide into a life at another moment. I know in the sequence with Georgette . . .
MF: . . . where she’s off on a travel, but you don’t meet her from her point of view.
MF: You meet her from the point of view of a very nice man who’s off to sort of recapture a little bit of his youth, who runs into her. And then the last section, the epilogue, which is about two brothers who have had a lifelong relationship, which of course the two Spoon girls haven’t; you sort of see them from that little side. But are there other collections of linked stories that you have read that you like or that you think work well?
JP: Ellen Gilchrist’s stories that include the character Rhoda and some re-appearing characters. I always like them. I like the idea of entering lives on the slant. I think that idea comes out of the idea that almost all stories are still in the telling. And so it feels as though there’s this continuous loop feed of story going on, and you can come at it at any time.
MF: I think right now so much of the market is focused on novels . . .
JP: It is.
MF: . . . and Blackbird this fall is going to do a special section on the work of Peter Taylor, who I think is a marvelous story[teller] . . . And you can make the argument that a book like In the Miro District, or even The Old Forest, that those stories are all about the same sort of bit of world whether the stories are connected or not.
JP: Oh sure, yeah, there’s Spoon River Anthology, and what’s the other one that everybody mentions?
MF: Winesburg, Ohio.
JP: Winesburg, Ohio, yes. When I was finishing this book, Winesburg, Ohio came to mind and I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve written something like Winesburg, Ohio,” so I went quickly to look at it and was reassured that I hadn’t. I really can’t say that there was any kind of model for the structure of this book, it really did come out of the idea that these stories are told by different people at different times for different purposes.
Here’s a series of books that did influence me: Wright Morris’s two linked books, Fire Sermon and A Life, which takes the character of Floyd Warner and opens at points in his life and then carries on his story in other points of view, not as a structural device, but just as a plot device basically. So I love Wright Morris. That would be one of the bigger influences.
MF: Do you teach novel writing at ODU [Old Dominion University], or just—
JP: I haven’t.
MF: But you do teach short story writing.
JP: I do. I guess they’re my great love.
MF: So what are some of the things that you feel are the particular purview of the short story and how those things can work well in ways that are different from a novel.
JP: Well, the old unities in the short story—the symmetry, proportion. I did, not in those terms, but in a manner of thinking, have those in mind always as I was writing the final version of this book. I wanted each story to have its own portion, symmetry, unity of point of view as well. Each character needed some kind of, not defining moment, because that seems like such a cliché, but needed his or her exit from the world of these stories, and so that’s what the other stories try to provide. When I was doing the old guys having their fight at the end, it occurred to me then that Georgette, one of the characters in the prior story, could appear then. And it was as though—I certainly hadn’t planned it and thought about it ahead of time, but suddenly there she was in there, and so that pleased me enough to stop writing.
MF: I know novelists set things up by scenes and they have to sort of draw them out this way or the other way, and they can sort of insert another scene here, another scene there. And stories have an organic nature within themselves that strikes me as something that has to grow and breathe within that space, and yours do that really wonderfully.
JP: Well thank you. That was the challenge with this book, making the stories be stories with all the virtues of the short story and yet having them germane to the larger story of Mackie Spoon—that was a real challenge.
MF: But Mackie is the central and she . . .
JP: She is the center.
MF: It’s from her point of view. The novella is given to her.
JP: Yes, first person.
MF: You chose to have her be the writer of that.
JP: Finally, to solve a real difficulty of narrative stance. You know, from what point in time is the narrator delivering the story, and under what circumstances. And basically the old workshop question that you hear all the time in undergrad workshops, “What’s the occasion for the story?” I chose a written form just so she could do some reflecting. The original short story that the whole book comes from had no such overlay of that written form—“I’m writing these letters now for this reason.” And so that was a challenge too, to get that short story immediacy from the original What the Thunder Said into the context of this woman’s—essentially her memoirs of a terrible time in her life, then her accounting of her life. So that was a balancing act in terms of point of view distance and psychic distance.
MF: It gave you a much deeper picture of Mackie Spoon because of that too, or Maxine as I guess she was in her . . .
JP: In her later years, yes.
MF: And you only have her sister Etta really come at the end of her life and you take Etta kind of out, whereas I remember back in the beginning Etta and Mackie were more equals, a kind of pair. Was that a decision too?
JP: Yes, I think in the version you read that was the case. And I think I was more interested in Etta as a character just because she was so bad and just because she was so mercurial. And so in those previous drafts, I was trying, and failing, to inject interest because of that character’s divergence from normalcy. And that was a false thing, to do that, so I decided it was enough for Etta to go away and follow her—what she had set up as her destiny and then pierce that moment when she herself makes an actual choice that has real consequences in that short story “Garden of the Gods.”
MF: She decides to leave Georgette, her child, and just move on.
JP: And then Georgette. I had worked on the short story Georgette appears in; it’s titled, “How Okies Look to Natives.” I had worked on that for about ten years too—written the first fifteen pages of it, the story, about this radiologist, I guess he is, travelling across country to visit a lost old country in the west, then the rest of the story just kind of told itself. But it was that long in the making too. I didn’t know what to do with it. It was a good enough opening to hang onto.
MF: What made you decide to pick the Okies who stayed?
JP: Because my family were Okies who stayed and they weren’t hard scrabble farmers. They were merchants and preachers and shopkeepers and teachers and farmers; they certainly were farmers. My grandfather had a farm in Barber County that was dusted out, which is what led him into the city, Wichita—big city. So, I grew up hearing Dust Bowl horror stories. During the 1950s when the Great Plains were once again in a drought that was even greater than anything the '30s had to offer, we would have daily dust storms, small ones, nothing like the great black blizzards of the '30s, but I remember my mother driving in a car down a country road and five little kids are in the back—I’m one of them—the dust cloud comes and she stopped the car and began to have hysterics, real hysterics, just crying and sobbing and clawing to get out. So the dust storms and the poverty of the Depression and habits of the Depression really marked that generation, and so, of course, they marked me as well.
MF: Did you need to read a lot for what you did with that? What did you go to?
JP: There was a great book put out by the University of Nebraska Press, I believe. It was called Waiting on the Bounty: The Dustbowl Diary of Mary Knackstedt Dyck [University of Iowa Press, 2005], and it was a day book of a woman who lived on a fairly remote farm, and in her day book on her kitchen table she would keep track of weather and how many eggs she gathered and what Pa was going to do. And the day book was collected later on, so it’s a five- to seven-year account of this woman’s life. I can’t read it without becoming profoundly affected, even now. So I got many details out of that and that pervading feeling of gloom.
MF: And there’s that wonderful detail where you have the blue wing teal or something that had flown over.
JP: I made that up.
MF: You made that up?
JP: Out of nothing. Some of the details I learned from reading other books. The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan’s book, came out after my book was in press. I wish I had been able to go through it; it’s a great book. And then I have many, many Dust Bowl-era books and Great Depression books. And then I just remember stories being told by everybody in my family. They were still farming families.
MF: Details of a farming life of how different implements are used or what their names are are little ways you sort of call something.
JP: Yeah, that’s just from growing up in that place, on those family farms.
MF: Would you be interested in tackling something that you have to set in a different historical time and place again?
MF: Is that something that attracts you?
JP: I would be. That’s why I’m reading that book you saw on the screen porch. The book was Ozark Folklore, or something. So yes, I would. The book I have been thinking about and wondering about and making notes for; I set in 1871 on the Kansas-Missouri line right near the Ozarks. So yes, I would do it again. I admire books like that when I see them. I’m reading right now Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002] and all the details of the '20s, the Greeks and the Turks, and I always admire the research people do to render those other historical moments.
MF: Lee Smith’s On Agate Hill did that too.
JP: Oh my gosh, yes, yes. And it transports you there and I love that.
MF: Thinking of people who write historical fiction, George Garrett did that with his Elizabethan trilogy, with the Ralegh book, the Death of the Fox, I guess was the first one for that.
MF: Does it give you another way to have a step back for your reader to make them more thoughtful about things that you can sort of point out that would be more difficult to emphasize in contemporary ways?
JP: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s my main reason for setting stories and novels in times before cell phones and computers. I don’t want to get on a grandstand and talk about that. But it seems to me that what draws me to rural settings is not simply that I grew up in them. It’s that the characters, the human beings in the stories, are just closer to their own real needs and their own real feelings. Maybe that’s a failure of my imagination but it’s a long process. Everything that happens in a slower time is a longer thinking process too, or can be.
MF: The ability for reflection, or also, who gets to tell the story becomes another mediating factor . . .
JP: It does.
MF: . . . in there too.
JP: It does. But also who gets to tell the story can cause some formal somersault doings like Eugenides is having to do right now with his first-person narrator who wasn’t present during his grandparent’s courtship. The effects, or point of view effects, are marvelous, and he does it flawlessly. So I really like to watch those somersaults and a great writer does them.
MF: If you would take us out by reading a little section from the novella part of What the Thunder Said, and from Mackie Spoon's . . .
JP: Point of view.
MF: . . . point of view in her little memoir I think.
JP: Yeah, okay. This comes at the end of the impulse, or she’s had the impulse to write. Something has happened in her life that causes her to want to account for a certain part of her life and what she did to her sister, and so she sits down to write:
The prologue for What the Thunder Said first appeared in Blackbird v4n2, fall 2005, as